Tuesday, March 19, 2013

I didn't want to read this book! 4 stars ****

As the title of my review makes clear, I really didn't want to read this book. It showed up at my door, unsolicited, and I groaned inwardly when I looked at the cover. I just knew this was going to be one of those books where the author has a life-changing experience about world poverty and tries to make everyone with a middle class American life feel all guilty about it.

Even though I didn't want to read this book, I decided to read the cover blurb and look at the pictures. Then I read the first couple chapters and skimmed around the rest of the book. As I skimmed, I realized the author wasn't putting out holier-than-thou attitude -- in fact he made fun of himself a lot. The more I skimmed, the more interested I was, so I went back to the beginning and started reading. I barely put it down all that weekend.

In part this is a story about a family that suffered the loss of a child and took a break from their regular lives to be dorm parents in a boarding school in Kenya for the children of missionaries and then decided to stay at the school long term. In part this is a story about Kenya, with descriptions of the land and the people, including both the good and the bad. And in part this is a story about how small things can add up to big changes.

The author's choice to include amusing daily life stories, such as the boys in his dorm wanting to have the stinkiest room and self-deprecating stories about his struggles with the language, keep this book from becoming preachy or holier than thou. You have to laugh along with someone who can laugh at himself. Those stories provide much-needed breaks from the description of poverty on a scale no one in the USA can imagine and children so hungry they have to lie down in school.

The main point of the book -- and the reason the lighter anecdotes are important to keep the reader captivated -- is poverty and hunger. It's such a big issue that most of us end up feeling helpless to do anything about it. The author started small -- he had a plan to provide lunch for one or two nearby Kenyan public schools so the children would stay in school, get an education and have a better chance for the future. Over time his organization, Kenya Kids Can, grew to provide daily lunches for 20,000 children in 35 schools and built 20 solar-powered computer centers at schools.

By the end of the book, I didn't feel guilty. I felt hopeful. Little things we can do can make a big difference in Africa and around the world. In addition to the author's organization, there are local and national charities that are involved in We can In my home state of Minnesota there is an organization called Feed My Starving Children that uses volunteers to pack food that costs 22 cents per meal and is sent all around the world. World Vision is a larger global relief organization. And there are plenty more.

We don't all have to go to Africa (for which I am thankful as I'd be a terrible missionary). Anyone can do small things -- give up a latte once a week (or even just once) and donate the money. Kids could have a lemonade stand and send the money to feed children around the world. The last couple years I have walked a half marathon to raise money for World Vision but was not planning to do it again this summer. But after reading this book, I decided this was one thing I could do to help.

I really didn't want to read this book, but I'm glad I did.

Disclosure: I received an unsolicited free copy of this book from the publisher in hopes that I would write a review. My opinions are my own.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Purpose Driven Life -- What on Earth am I Here For?

I did the Purpose Driven Life study in a small group with my church back when it first came out and I then thought it was a great book and made me think a lot about my life.  But time goes by and life goes on and a lot of the things I thought would change in my life ended up staying the same.  And you see the same old book jacket on your shelf and never think to take it down again.
But some books are worth picking up again after a number of years and I think this is one of them.  And this new edition will has features that will appeal to young adults who were too young the first time it came out as well as the technologically savvy.
Back when this book came out, people didn't bring their Bibles to church in the form of an iPad, iPod or iPhone and they weren't watching TV and movies on devices they could hold in their hands.  But now they do and this book has features that take advantage of the advances in technology.  At the beginning of each chapter, there is a QR code (the funny looking block of pixels) and when you take a photo of it with your smartphone, you get a 3 minute video inroduction to the chapter from Rick Warren plus an audio lesson for the end of the chapter and a Bible study guide.  I have a "stupid phone" so I borrowed a friend's phone to try it out.  For those of us a little behind the digital revolution, there is a URL you can type into your internet browser and get the same features on your computer.
In addition to the tech-y bells and whistles, there are two new chapters at the end of the book -- making this a 42 day journey instead of the old 40 days.  This means if you want to do this for Lent, you need to start a little bit in advance. 
The new chapters are, like the rest of the book, really good. They are on two things that keep Christians from fulfilling God's purpose for their lives -- the envy trap and the people pleaser trap.  The chapter on envy felt like it was written just for me, especially when he said that envy is an insult to God because you are saying God made a mistake with your life by not giving you the things other people have that you envy.  Wow.  And people pleasing/fear of disapproval is another almost universal issue.
The new chapters, audio and video messages improve what was already a very good book.  It's time to do this Bible study again.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

"The Informationist" by Taylor Stevens is an intriguing debut thriller 5 stars

This book really surprised me -- in a good way. I wanted to read it because I like thrillers with female main characters -- the idea of strong resourceful women in thrillers is a pleasant change from the testosterone fests that thrillers often become. I really enjoyed this book and think both men and women would find it a good read. There is plenty of action for the guys (plus there are male main characters as well so it isn't a chick fest). And for women the vicarious thrill of a female character taking down the bad guys! But this wasn't the typical thriller I was expecting.

From the jacket blurb, I knew the protagonist of this book would be strong and resourceful. Despite the jacket blurb. I just didn't realize how dark and twisty her inner self would be. That dark and twisty side sometimes gets in the way of the story but it also creates an unusual and very intriguing character. This isn't someone trained in special forces or spy school to kill without emotion as in many thriller novels. The scars she has -- both inside and outside -- show the price she paid to acquire her skills. There is a darkness in her that she acknowledges but can't seem to escape for long.

The interesting differences in the book start with the character's name. The book jacket describes her as Vanessa Monroe but for most of the book she goes by the name Michael and seems to have spent a far amount of time masquerading as a boy or young man. Part of the darkness of Munroe's character comes out of her background as a missionary kid in Africa. She was left on her own much of the time by older parents who appear, from the judgment-filled Scriptures she often hears in her head, to have adhered to a hellfire and brimstone brand of theology. (The author bio indicates she was raised in a cult so I wouldn't expect a lot of warm fuzzies about religion from her.)

More of the source of her darkness comes later in the book when Monroe thinks back to the events that led her to leave Africa. That time also explains the source of the skills she uses in doing her work.

The book started a little bit slow for me (some of which, oddly, was from the typeface used in the advanced readers copy I got). So bear with it if you don't get hooked right way. But once I got into the book, I could hardly put it down. And after that, the pace was nearly perfect. I didn't feel the urge to skip ahead and that is rare for me as I often get bored and want to see what comes next. While I was caught up in the book, I resented the time I had to spend working and sleeping and thus away from the action.

Africa -- particularly Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea -- is almost a character of its own in the book. You should know this is not the Africa of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books with happy pleasant people. It is a hard and dangerous place, especially for foreigners poking into things others want kept secret.

I think at least a glance at the geography of the area in which the bulk of the book takes place would be helpful to follow the characters' travels in Africa. I was generally familiar with the location of Cameroon but Equatorial Guinea was a mystery. It was a surprise when I saw that Bioko Island, where the capitol is, is off the coast of Cameroon and fairly distant from the rest of Equatorial Guinea, . Ad I looked at a map before starting the book, I'd have been better able to picture the characters' travels. If the publisher doesn't include a map in the finished book, you should definitely look at a map before getting very far in the book.

I definitely recommend reading this book. The author bio indicates she is working on a second Vanessa Monroe book and I look forward to reading that one as well.

I got this book free from the Amazon Vine program in exchange for writing a review.  The opinions expressed are my own.

Monday, January 31, 2011

"Same Life, New Story" by JanSilvious has good topics but needed more depth 3 stars

I have mixed feelings about this book. I can't decide whether I like it or am just OK with it. That ambivalence results in the 3 star rating. What I like about it is the variety of bad stories we can find ourselves stuck in and the opportunity we have to make a new story out of our situation or our reaction to a situation that can't change. Each chapter is illustrated with the life of a woman in the Bible as well as real life examples from the life of the author or people she knows.

What I found lacking was more practical application on how to move from a bad story into a new one. The author too often made is sound like it was as easy as "just" changing your thinking, but that's often the hardest part. There were a couple chapters where I thought -- this is me in that old story, how do I get myself to the new one. But the author just moved on to another example of someone else who made that move without a lot of depth on how to do it. Even though I wanted more depth, I am going to loan it to someone in my Bible study who is in difficult life circumstances. I hope it will give her the ability to see the different ways she can write a new story with her life.

The chapters (and illustrative Bible woman) are: (1) Realize It's Time to Get a Life and Tell a New Story (Naomi), (2) Don't Be Held Hostage by the Past (Leah), (3) Ask Yourself the Good Questions Only You Can Ask (Rahab), (4) Change Your "I Can't" to "I Can" (Deborah), (5) Delete the Drama of the Day (Hannah), (6) Forget the What-might-have-beens (Anna), (7) Discover the Power of Wisdom and Courage Combined (Jehosheba), (8) Get Past the Resistance of Fear (Abigail), (9) Choose to Bounce Back (Naaman's servant girl), and (10) The Last Chapter Has Not Been Written Yet (Elizabeth).

At the end of each chapter, there are 8 questions of personal reflection and a journaling exercise. For use in a group setting, there are also a number of group discussion questions. The cover calls this a 10-week Bible study. I'd call it a Christian book study, not a Bible study but my definition of a Bible study is something more like the Precept program or a Beth Moore Bible study where you really get into the Bible for the homework like Breaking Free: The Journey, The Stories. That being said, it would be a good thing for a group of women to read and discuss.

I was given this book by the publisher for purposes of giving a review. The opinions expressed in this review are my own.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

"The Voice of the Psalms" -- a new translation I don't recommend

I really wanted to like this translation of the Psalms on the theory that anything that gets the current generation into the Bible has got to be good. I often look at Bible passages in several different translations ranging from ones that are closer to word-for-word end of the translation spectrum to The Message on the dynamic equivalence end so I evaluated this translation of the Psalms as a "reading version" more like The Message and not a study version. Even so, there are things about this translation that I just really don't like.

I'll start with the cosmetics. It's maybe a little shallow but the way a Bible is printed is important to me. I want it to be comfortable to read. On the plus side, the text goes across the page in a single reading line, not two columns. I don't know why publishers still print Bibles in two columns because that's not the way we read. Another positive is that the margins are large enough to write notes in, but given that this is a Bible for reading and not study, that is probably unnecessary.

The positives in appearance are outweighed by the huge negative of the shading behind the words. It starts off fairly light on the bottom of the page but by the top, it is medium gray. Even the lightest parts looked smudgy and dirty. I thought it was ugly. And the way the publisher split individual Psalms over a couple pages to fit the "reflections" on the first page of the Psalm was quite irritating. This wasn't only for the longer Psalms, they split up short ones that could have fit on one page without the interruption of the "reflection." It was bad enough when a Psalm was split over facing pages, but it was most annoying to have to turn the page for the rest of the Psalm just to fit the "reflection" on the first page.

My issues with the translation itself are much more than the cosmetics. I appreciate the idea that poets, musicians and writers might help breathe life into a translation by academics but when the number of contributing writers is triple the number of Biblical scholars, I think the balance is too far skewed to the lay contributor. I also think the Biblical scholars for this book don't have the wide ranging theological background or same level of reputation in the field as the groups involved in some of the other modern translations.

But my most serious issue involves the translation itself. The first thing that bothered me is the choice of "title" for God to use in the places where the original text has the tetragrammaton (YHWH), the holiest name of God. The NIV and the New Living Translation use "the LORD" with large & small capital letters in LORD for this word and The Message uses simply "God." For some reason, the Voice translation uses Eternal One, which I don't think conveys the sense that this is God. God is, of course, eternal but that doesn't convey a name so sacred that the Jews wouldn't even say it aloud.

But even worse than the name of God, I am deeply concerned about the additions to the text that take it far beyond a dynamic equivalence and into adding thoughts that are what the translators thought should be included. The preface of this book notes that "italic type indictes words not directly tied to a dynamic translation of the original language." Given that a dynamic translation is a "thought by thought" not literal translation, going beyond that is pretty dangerous. I compared several Psalms to the NIV and NLT versions and generally either thought the added language in italics either didn't add to the understanding of the passage or were beyond what one should assume the particular psalmust intended. I thought that the italicized passages made this more like a paraphrase than a translation.

For that reason, I urge people who may be interested in getting this that it not be your only Bible. Much like "The Message" translation (which is also more of a paraphrase), if you want this for a reading version for a change of pace, keep that in mind and don't rely on it as a study Bible. At least the publishers give you the italics -- I started skipping over the italicized portions as I read it and that felt better to me. But between thinking "the LORD" in place of Eternal One and skipping over the italics, this was not a great Bible reading experience for me.

I was given a copy of this book free by the publisher, Thomas Nelson, in exchange for writing a review. I think it goes without saying that my opinion is my own and not influenced by the publisher. My review is also available on Booksneeze.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

"Snowdrops" by A.D. Miller 3 1/2 stars psychological drama

I expected this book to be a thriller based on a couple of the publicity blurbs. It's not a thriller so if you are expecting one, you might be disappointed. The jacket blurbs that describe it as a psychological drama and as "noirish" are much more accurate. After I realized what this book isn't, I settled down to enjoy it for what it is and it succeeded on that level.

The story is told in the form of a journal/confessional written from the main character, Nick Platt, to his fiance who is only part of the book in the asides Nick writes to her while he is telling the story. The story he tells is about what happened to him in Russia and why he never talks to her about his time in Moscow or why he left.

Nick is a British ex-pat attorney representing foreign banks lending money to Russian enterprises. Being an attorney is central to the secondary story in the book, about his firm's work on a project to finance a project in the Barents Sea (between Russia's northern coast and the Arctic Ocean) but only secondary to the main story about Nick's relationship with two young Russian women he meets, Masha and Katya. Nick has been in Moscow almost 4 years when he meets Masha and Katya at a Metro stop and is instantly smitten with Masha. His relationship with Masha and Katya, and what it says about the kind of man Nick is deep inside, is the main focus of the book.

This book is less about the events that happen and more about how Nick feels about his life and how being in Moscow and in a relationship with Masha makes him feel and act. That is both the psychological drama and the noirish nature of the book. The description of Moscow and winter gives the book an especially dark atmosphere.

The beginning of the book makes you think it is going to end one way, but it doesn't go the way the reader, or Nick, expects. There were several times during the book when I wanted to stop Nick and make him think about what he was doing. Because of my background in corporate finance, those times were not just in his relationship with Masha but also in the work Nick does on the project financing. And when you get to the ending, you will wonder what Nick's fiance will do with the last things he says in his confessional.

If you are looking for a classic thriller, this is not your book. But it is interesting and enjoyable as a psychological drama about the things people do to feel alive and the setting of the book in Russia adds to the feeling. It wasn't my favorite book of the year but it was worth reading.

I got this book free from Amazon Vine in order to write a review.  The opinions expressed are my own.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

"The Reluctant Prophet" by Nancy Rue

"For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me." Matt. 25:35-36

This Bible passage doesn't appear in "The Reluctant Prophet" but it's message is woven throughout the whole story. And to make it perfectly obvious -- if you hadn't noticed from the publisher or the plot summary -- this is Christian fiction. But it's not as in-your-face evangelical as some books I've read, which will make some people love it more and others like it less. It's not a perfect book, but I enjoyed reading it and it made me think.

Allison Chamberlain is the protagonist of this novel. She is 41 years old and has been a Christian for 7 years. I always worry a little about the characters in Christian fiction -- will they be Pollyanna perfect people who never have doubts and never do anything wrong? That is definitely not the case with this book. The book opens with Allison not paying attention to the sermon in church because she's distracted by the people around her and asking God to show her what she's supposed to do with her faith. Unlike most of us, Allison gets not only a Nudge from God but hears a very specific message: Go out and buy a Harley. The story is about what happens when she does just that and her Harley brings her into contact with the kind of people you don`t see sitting around you in church. Even after her Nudge from God, Allison doesn't turn all Pollyanna.

There is a lot in this book that will make you really think about what Jesus said about "the least of these" and whether what we are doing as Christians is really enough. But there was also a lot in the book that bothered me. For example, Allison stopped going to church (rather than look for another one) when her pastor and her small group did not support what she believes God is telling her to do. And some of the theological/spiritual aspects felt a little fuzzy to me. The focus is much more on social action.

I also didn't like that the church people were painted as the "bad guys" of the book because they didn't support what Allison was doing. If a friend who was barely making ends meet bought an expensive motorcycle and brought drug addicted hookers into her home, I don't think my reaction would be very different.

But the book created strong emotional feelings in me for the characters. I cried several times while reading. And the story held my attention; I was worried about that when I saw the length of the book. I recommend reading it.

I got this book free from Amazon Vine to write a review.  The opinions expressed herein are my own.